Quality STEM education is crucial to providing students with a well-rounded foundation of skills to help them understand a wide range of concepts and thrive in many industries. At the same time, it’s important for them to see scientists like themselves as they advance through their academic careers.
These dual tasks—of educating future scientists and ensuring all identities are represented—are at the core of AAAS’ STEM education projects. “All students should have opportunities for transformative, meaningful and culturally representative science experiences throughout their lives so that they can identify and be curious about the science around them and see themselves as scientists, inventors, storytellers and advocates,” says Suzanne Thurston, Program Director in AAAS’ Inclusive STEM Ecosystems for Diversity and Equity (ISEED) unit.
STEMTalks to inspire
One of the STEM Literacy projects, AAAS STEMTalks, is an interview series aimed at inspiring youth to pursue careers in the sciences. Each five-question installment connects a young person with a scientist, allowing them to ask questions about their typical day and who inspires them, for example, and helps showcase the incredible diversity of STEM careers.
Their latest interview features Imani Black—an aquaculture biologist who works for the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science's Horn Point Laboratory as a Faculty Research Assistant. Motivated by how long oystering has been in her family, she started a non-profit called “Minorities in Aquaculture” (MIA) in 2019 as a way to get more minorities involved in aquaculture.
“I’ve been really inspired by the African Americans on the Chesapeake that came before me,” she explained. “Just learning about what they went through, their lives, their success and bravery, it just pushes me to continue their legacy and make sure that no one ever forgets them and their contribution to our seafood industry.”
When asked about advice she has for young people interested in STEM, Black urged them to find out what they are truly passionate about. “Your passion has the power to take you to opportunities beyond your wildest dreams if you let it,” she reiterated. “Science, marine science and aquaculture are not one size fits all. What one person or a group of people do in these fields is not necessarily what you have to do as well. The great thing about these industries is that there are so many things to experience and just try out.”
In-classroom and at-home support
Beyond an interview series focused on STEM careers, the ISEED STEM education team provides a plethora of educational resources for K-12 youth to keep them engaged in classrooms and at home.
The AAAS/Subaru Prize for Excellence in Science Books, for example, celebrates outstanding science writing and illustration for children and young adults. It is meant to encourage both the writing and publishing of high-quality science books for all age groups. AAAS believes that, through good science books, this generation, and the next, will have a better understanding and appreciation of STEM fields. Past winners have included stories about a daring shark whisperer, inclusive stories about inventions, how one child can champion the protection of the environment and a visually stunning exploration of amazing coral reefs and the animals that use it.
"STEM books spark their curiosity, expand their understanding of the world, and introduce them to the people behind the discoveries. We want to engage young minds with fascinating stories and inspiring people,” said Sarah Ingraffea, the Book Awards manager.
Based on these books, ISEED STEM education staff have also developed a number of engaging, inquiry-based activities. They were designed with simplicity in mind and can be done anywhere, limiting the level of burden on caretakers (activities can be done with little adult supervision) and eliminating the need for expensive materials (readily available household items will suffice). Spanish-language resources are available as well.
“By exposing students to STEM through books and activities that explore science concepts, children develop an enthusiasm for science and strengthen their STEM pathway,” states Thurston. “Programs like the AAAS/Subaru Loves Learning project provide opportunities for learners to connect science concepts to everyday life and hopefully spark a passion that leads them to a future STEM career.”
Another ISEED project that uses inquiry-based activities to help children learn science is GSK Science in the Summer™. The program serves almost 1,000 second to fifth graders in underserved communities in the Washington, DC-metro area each summer and is hosted by libraries, Boys & Girls Clubs, recreation centers and other community-based organizations. AAAS develops partnerships with host organizations and trains local science teachers to deliver the program.
Back in the classroom, the AAAS STEM Volunteers assist teachers and students to build science literacy and make connections with careers. Around 200 STEM professionals, retired and still working, visit K-12 classrooms weekly for the entire school year to help with a range of activities. School district partners include the District of Columbia, Arlington, Fairfax County and Montgomery County. Volunteers pivoted to virtual support during COVID-19.
The need for a diverse workforce to sustain innovation, as well as to fill critical STEM jobs, is well documented. In spite of the growing demand for expertise in certain STEM disciplines, including marine sciences, U.S. academic institutions are struggling to recruit and retain domestic students from historically underrepresented populations. Efforts to bolster and diversify STEM pathways start with access to quality STEM education and AAAS' Inclusive STEM Ecosystems for Equity and Diversity is excited to continue collaborating with cross-sector partners to support full representation of all people in STEM.